John F. Kennedy photo

Remarks in New York City at the AFL-CIO Convention.

November 15, 1963

Mr. Meany, Members of the Executive Council, fellow delegates, ladies and gentlemen: The other day I read in the newspaper where Senator Goldwater asked for labor's support before 2000 cheering Illinois businessmen. I have come here to ask labor's support for a program for the United States. I am glad to come to this convention, and I think that the AFL-CIO, that this convention, and looking back over the years, over this century, can take pride in the actions it has taken, pride in the stand it has made, pride in the things it has done not only for the American labor movement, but for the United States as a whole. It is no accident. I think that those who oppose what we are trying to do today could recall the comparative history of the years between World Wars I and II and the years since World War II. The 20-year period from 1919 to 1939 was marked by an 11-year depression, a 2-year depression, 8 years of stagnation in the twenties on the farms of America. And all of the efforts which were made in the thirties against almost comparable opposition, and on occasions even greater to what we do today--all of the efforts which were made in the thirties and later carried out in the administration of President Truman, I think have made it possible for us to have a far different history from 1945 through to 1965.

Those 20 years, 1919 to 1939, those years from 1945 through 1965, tell the story of the progress which Franklin Roosevelt made in the thirties and on which we now live and benefit in the 1960's. It is no accident--it is no accident that this country staggered through 20 years. And it is no accident--it didn't just merely happen that this country has steadily increased in wealth and strength in the years from 1945 on. It is because of the steps that were taken in the thirties to lay the foundation for progress in the forties and fifties and sixties that make it possible for us to meet in these circumstances. And our obligation in the 1960's is to do those things in the Congress of the United States and in the various States which will make it possible for others in the 1970's and 1980's to continue to live in prosperity.

Three years ago, and one week, by a landslide, the people of the United States elected me to the Presidency of this country, and it is possible that you had something to do with that majority of 112,000 votes. And I think it, therefore, appropriate to say something about what we have done, and even more appropriate to say something about what we must do.

With your help and support, with your concern, we have worked to try to improve the lot of the people of the United States. In the last 3 years abroad we have doubled the number of nuclear weapons in our strategic alert forces. In the last 3 years we have increased by 45 percent the number of combat-ready Army divisions. We have increased by 600 percent the number of our counter-insurgency forces; increased by 175 percent our procurement of airlift aircraft, and doubled our polaris and minuteman program. The United States is stronger today than ever before in our history, and with that strength we work for peace.

Here in the United States we have encouraged the peaceful desegregation of schools in 238 districts, theaters in 144 cities, restaurants in 129 cities, and lunch counters in 100 cities, while at the same time taking Executive action to open doors to our citizens in transportation terminals and polling places, and public and private employment. And finally, we have been working to strengthen the economy of the United States, through the Area Redevelopment Act of '61, through the Public Works Acceleration Act of '62, through the Manpower Development and Training Act of '62.

We have increased industry's ability and desire to hire men through the most extensive and promising trade expansion act in our history, through the most comprehensive housing and urban renewal act of all time, through liberalized depreciation guidelines, and through over $1 billion in loans to small businessmen. We have boosted the purchasing power and relieved the distress of some of those least able to take care of themselves, by increasing the minimum wage to $1.25, which is still much too low, and expanding its coverage by 3 1/2 million, which is still too little; by increasing social security benefits to men and women who can retire at the age of 62; by granting for the first time in the history of the United States public assistance to several hundred thousand children of unemployed fathers; and by extending the benefits of nearly 3 million jobless workers.

By doing these things, and others, we have attempted to work for the benefit of our people. And I can assure you that if we can obtain--and I see no good reason why we should not--if we can obtain the prompt passage of the pending $11 billion tax reduction bill, we will be sailing by next April on the winds of the longest and strongest peacetime expansion in the history of the United States.

Our national output 3 years ago was $500 billion. In January, 3 years later, it will be $600 billion, a record rise of $100 billion in 36 months. For the first time in history we have 70 million men and women at work. For the first time in history factory earnings have exceeded $100 a week, and even the stock market has broken all records, although we only get credit when it goes down. The average factory worker takes home $10 a week more than he did 3 years ago, and 2 1/2 million people more are at work. In fact, if the economy during the last 2 1/2 years had grown at the same lagging pace which it did in the last 2 1/2 years of the fifties, unemployment today would be 8 percent. In short, we have made progress, but all of us know that more progress must be made. That is what we are here about. I am here today to talk about the right to work, the right to have a job in this country in a time of prosperity in the United States. That is the real right to work issue in 1963. In spite of this progress, this country must move so fast to even stand still.

Productivity goes up so fast. The number of people coming into the labor market so increases. Ten million more jobs are needed in the next 2 1/2 years. Even with this astonishing economic progress, which in the last 18 months has meant that the United States has grown faster economically than France and Germany, than any country in Europe but two, even with this extraordinary economic progress in the last 18 months we still have an unemployment rate of 5 1/2 percent, 4 million people out of work. Productivity goes up so fast, so many millions come into the labor market, that unless we have the most extraordinary economic progress in the history of our country we cannot possibly make a dent in the 5 1/2 percent figure.

So while we take some satisfaction in what we have done and tried to do, this group more than any knows how much we still have left to do. And I hope the day will never come, nor do I predict it, when the AFL-CIO will be satisfied with anything less than the best.

Four million people are out of work. All of the people who opposed the efforts we are making to try to improve the economic climate of the United States, who talked to us so long about socialism and deficits and all the rest, should look at that figure. Four million people out of work. And judging from last summer's statistics, three times that many have experienced some unemployment. And that hanging over the labor market makes it more difficult for those of you who speak for labor at the bargaining table to speak with force. When there are so many people out of work it affects the whole economic climate. That is why I think that this issue of economic security, of jobs, is the basic issue facing the United States in 1963, and I wish we could get everybody talking about it. A quarter of the people we are talking about are out of work 15 weeks or longer and their families feel it.

This is a year of prosperity, of record prosperity--and 1954 was a year of recession-yet our unemployment rate is as high today as it was in 1954. Last year's loss of man-hours in terms of those willing but unable to find full-time work was a staggering one billion workdays lost, equivalent to shutting down the entire country for 3 weeks with no pay. That is an intolerable waste for this rich country of ours.

That is why I say that economic security is the number one issue today. It is not so recognized by everyone. There are those who oppose the tax cut, the youth employment bill, who oppose more money for depressed areas and job retraining, and other public needs. And they are powerful and articulate. They are campaigning on a platform of so-called individual initiative. They talk loudly of deficits and socialism, but they do not have a single constructive job-creating program of their own, and they oppose the efforts that we are making. And I do not believe that selling TVA is a program to put people to work.

There are those who support our efforts for jobs but say it isn't the number one issue. Some may say that civil rights is the number one issue. This Nation needs the passage of our bill, if we are to fulfill our constitutional obligations, but no one gains from a fair employment practice bill if there is no employment to be had; no one gains by being admitted to a lunch counter if he has no money to spend. No one gains from attending a better school if he doesn't have a job after graduation. No one thinks much of the right to own a good home and to sleep in a good hotel or go to the theater if he has no work and no money. The civil rights legislation is important. But to .make that legislation effective we need jobs in the United States.

Some may say that the number one domestic issue is education, and this Nation must improve its education. What concerns me almost more than anything is the statistic that there will be 8 million young boys and girls coming into the labor market in the sixties who have not graduated from high school. Where are they going to find jobs? Which of your unions is going to be able to put them to work, 8 million of them? But the best schools, the best teachers, the best books--all these are of no avail if there are no jobs.

The out,of-work college graduate is just as much out of work as a school dropout. The family beset by unemployment cannot send a child to college. It may even encourage him to drop out of high school to find a job which he will not keep. Education is a key to the growth of this country. We must educate our children as our most valuable resource. We must make it possible for those who have talent to go to college, but only if those who are educated can find a job.

If jobs are the most important domestic issue that this country faces, then clearly no single step can now be more important in sustaining the economy of the United States than the passage of our tax bill. Now this will help consumer markets and build investment demand and build business incentives and, therefore, provide jobs for a total addition to the economy of the United States in the next months of nearly $30 billion.

We dare not wait for this tax cut until it is too late, as perhaps some would have. On the average, this Nation's period of peacetime expansion before the downturn comes leading to a recession, on the average it has lasted 28 months since 1920 and 32 months since the end of the Second World War. Today we are already in our 33d month of economic expansion, and we urgently need that tax cut as insurance against a recession next year. And we need that cut where it will do the most good, and the benefits mostly will go to those 2 or 3 million people who will, out of that bill, find new jobs.

But tax cuts are not enough and jobs are not enough, and higher earnings and greater growth and record prosperity are not enough unless that prosperity is used to sustain a better society. We can take real pride in a $600 billion economy and 70 million jobs only when they are underwriting to the fullest extent possible to improve our schools, to rebuild our cities, to counsel our youth, to assure our health, and to care for our aged and infirm.

Next Monday the House Ways and Means Committee will open its hearings on a bill too long delayed to provide hospital insurance for our older citizens. These hearings are desirable, but the facts are known. Our older and retired workers are sick more often and for longer periods than the rest of the population. Their income is only half of that of our younger citizens. They cannot afford either the rising cost of hospital care or the rising cost of hospital insurance. Their children cannot afford to pay hospital bills for three generations--for their children, for themselves, and for their parents. I have no doubt that most children are willing to try to do it, but they cannot.

And I think that the United States should meet its responsibilities as a proud and resourceful country. I cannot tell whether we are going to get this legislation before Christmas, but I can say that I believe that this Congress will not go home next summer to the people of the United States without passing this bill. I think we should stay there until we do.

Abraham Lincoln said 100 years ago, "All that serves labor serves the Nation," and I want to express my appreciation for the actions which this organization has taken under the leadership of Mr. Meany, both at home and abroad, to strengthen the United States, to support assistance to those who are trying to be free, to make it possible in this hemisphere for labor organizations to be organized so that wealth can be more fairly distributed.

I saw coming in here a housing project of $10 million, which the AFL-CIO is putting into a housing project in Mexico. This hemisphere is our home and I cannot understand, as I read the debates of the Senate, and as I said yesterday, why it is possible for the Soviet Union with one-half the wealth of the United States to put as much resources and money and assistance into the single island of Cuba of 6 million people as this rich country does in its own backyard for all of the countries of Latin America. Can somebody explain that to me?

Strength abroad and strength at home! And strength abroad and strength at home in the final analysis depends upon the vitality of the economy of the United States. If we move from recession to recession, if we are unable to master our economic problems and permit them to master us, if we move into a recession in '64 and demonstrate that the cycle which has been traditional is still with us, if we end up that recession with 8 or 9 million people out of work, what then is going to be said about the leader of the West? What we are attempting to do affects not only your members but all of the people of this country, and all those who around the world depend upon us.

The United States is the keystone in the arch of freedom. However disappointing life may be around the world, the forces of freedom are still in the majority, and they are in the majority after 18 years because the United States has been willing to bear the burden. There are 1 million Americans serving the United States outside its borders. No country in the history of the world has a comparable record. No country has ever sent so many of its sons and daughters around the globe, not to oppress but to help people be free. But we can maintain them, we can maintain our commitments, we can strengthen the cause of freedom, we can provide equality of opportunity for our people only in the final analysis if we provide for a growing and buoyant and progressive economy here in the United States. And that is what we are attempting to do.

I come here today and I express my appreciation to the AFL-CIO which, in the 1960's, is attempting to do what its fathers did in the 1930'sin supporting a program of progress for this country of ours. So we ask your help not next year but now.

Marshal Lyautey, the great French marshal, went out to his gardener and asked him to plant a tree. The gardener said, "Why plant it? It won't flower for 100 years." "In that case," the Marshal said, "plant it this afternoon."

That is what we have to do.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 11 a.m. in the ballroom of the Americana Hotel in New York City to the delegates to the 5th Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO. His opening words "Mr. Meany" referred to George Meany, President, AFL-CIO.

John F. Kennedy, Remarks in New York City at the AFL-CIO Convention. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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